A little while ago, I reported on the Vatican’s plans to bring the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” to Mexican non-believers, with the prediction that the Church wanted to proselytize — not dialogue — and aimed to tell everyone in attendance why their beliefs were wrong and Catholicism is right all the time.
It turns out, though, that even Catholic-identified Mexicans can’t escape criticism for how they practice their faith.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, has taken aim at the popular Mexican cult of Santa Muerte. The roots of the iconic skeletal figure famously honored in colorful Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations can be traced to the historical blending of Old-World Catholicism with indigenous beliefs and practices, and she is honoured in many Mexican homes and families today:
Author R. Andrew Chestnut, who has researched and written extensively about the cult of Santa Muerte, neatly encapsulates the Christian/Catholic objections to Santa Muerte like this:
Ravasi rejects devotion to her (she’s a female figure) on theological grounds. From the Christian perspective, Christ defeated His last enemy — death — through His resurrection. Thus, the veneration or worship of a figure of death puts one in league with the enemy of Christ, or Satan. Most of the statements made by Mexican bishops imply that devotees of Santa Maria engage in Satanism unknowingly.
Ravasi has been a little bit less charitable in his choice of words. He called the cult a “degeneration of religion” and declared the skeletal saint (charmingly called “the Bony Lady” by some followers) “sinister and infernal.” He further insists that “religion celebrates life, but here you have death.”
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Catholic imagery — central to which is the crucifix, a cross depicted with Jesus’ suffering figure still attached — might be forgiven for pointing out the irony in his words.
Ravasi goes on to link the cult of Santa Muerte with the drug cartels and criminals who often venerate her image. Factually, he’s correct: Santa Muerte is popular with druglords and in Mexican prisons. However, he’s likely confusing correlation with causation: Santa Muerte doesn’t lead to a life of crime, but she is most popular in communities of the poor, where desperation drives both superstition and increased criminality.
It probably also doesn’t hurt to note that, where attempts have been made to give the cult of Santa Muerte official structure and standing, most Churches of the Holy Death embrace gay marriage and welcome same-sex couples wanting to celebrate the sacrament. Nearly 40% of Mexicans support same-sex marriage (PDF), and if global trends are any indication, that number is likely to grow. It’s easy to see why Santa Muerte might be culturally and morally appealing to Mexicans… and why she might give Ravasi and his ilk some sleepless nights.